Preliminary alternatives in one of three master leasing plans (MLP) to guide oil/natural gas development on public lands in Utah, the San Rafael Desert MLP, are undergoing a public comment period that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said Tuesday will close Jan. 20.

Past MLP proceedings in the state have drawn critical industry comments, such as one last year for the Moab area.

Two years ago, outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the BLM's Moab Master Leasing Plan (MMLP) a "model" for leasing plans on federal lands while she announced two other MLPs planned for Utah -- San Rafael Desert and Cisco Desert, involving more than 844,000 acres combined.

"These [San Rafael] alternatives were developed based on input received during the public scoping process that was initiated in May 2015," said a BLM spokesperson in Utah. She said the San Rafael Desert MLP will focus on about 525,000 acres in two counties (Emery and Wayne).

"There are established oil/gas fields to the east, but not within the planning area, which now sports 15-20 wells, each with different operators," the spokesperson said. "Like the Moab MLP, San Rafael is intended to be a collaborative effort in developing a blueprint."

In addition, the San Rafael MLP is attempting to also address what the BLM spokesperson called "unresolved leasing issues and suspensions" resulting from ongoing protests and litigation. Utah's third potential BLM planning effort, Cisco MLP, is still in the initial phases of background data gathering and its planning effort is still to be launched.

San Rafael also includes the concept of a "curative" National Environmental Policy Act approach that BLM claims should provide certainty to oil/gas developers and others that the MLP supports "long-term, environmentally responsible development of energy resources in the planning area."

As outlined by various Obama administration Interior Department officials, such as Jewell, in recent years, BLM has viewed the MLPs as providing a "roadmap for orderly development of oil/gas resources" while protecting other important wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities. The federal agency under the Obama administration has set specific goals for the MLP planning process:

  • Resolve outstanding issues for parcels that have been sold but not issued leases;
  • Determine whether to modify or lift lease suspensions awaiting further analysis;
  • Evaluate potential oil/gas development scenarios;
  • Identify and address potential resource conflicts and environmental impacts from oil/gas development; and
  • Identify potential conditions of approval and mitigation strategies for oil/gas development activities.

In rolling out the Moab MLP involving another 785,000 acres, BLM Director Neil Kornze has said that BLM seeks a "balance" between energy development and conservation. "We want to make sure that southern Utah's energy resources can be responsibly accessed," he said last year.

But industry representatives, such as Kathleen Sgamma, head of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, has been critical of the BLM MLP process, alleging that "BLM continues to jam in as much regulation as possible" on oil/gas producers before the end of the Obama administration, with the Moab plan carrying what she estimated as a cost of $2 billion in lost economic opportunity for local communities.